'President Bush is not automatically wrong'

The BBC must not give in to a liberal agenda, says its head of television news, Roger Mosey. But the constant attacks by the right-wing press are mean-spirited, he tells Tim Luckhurst
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"I think," says Roger Mosey, the BBC's head of television news, "we were very slow on the asylum story. Two years ago, when it started being raised ahead of the general election, we did not realise the level of popular unease about the issue." At the time, he explains, there was "a sort of easy, knee-jerk tendency, a kind of metropolitan ease, of saying, 'Oh, it's all got up by the Daily Mail or got up by the BNP or whatever.' I don't think that is true."

Mosey says that assumptions within the BBC are "something we need to be alert about all the time", and he insists that he and all of his colleagues "recognise the need to make sure that our journalism tests all viewpoints. That includes challenging the liberal-left consensus."

Mosey is responding to the persistent allegation that the corporation has an inherent left-wing bias. The charge is made most vocally in The Daily Telegraph's Beebwatch column, which was instigated by the paper's former editor Charles Moore six weeks after his proprietor, Conrad Black, wrote that a "virulent culture of bias" within the corporation had transformed it into "the greatest menace facing the country". Mosey is scathing about the Telegraph campaign; he calls it mean-spirited. But he respects the assertion that the BBC must be alert to liberal assumptions among its journalists.

The importance of the asylum issue was brought home to him when Newsnight recently broadcast a programme from Newcastle, during which the Prime Minister was subjected to questions from the public. "The first 10, 12 minutes were ordinary voters in the North-east putting their fears about asylum direct to the Prime Minister. If we have underplayed things in the past, we will learn from that and try to make sure we get it right."

Has the allegation of instinctive liberal prejudice been discussed by news executives? "We talk all the time about lessons you learn about particular perspectives." In the 1980s, he remembers: "There was probably a general view around most newspaper columnists and most metropolitan dinner-tables that Reagan and Thatcher were wrong in not supporting détente or going for an arms build-up that might potentially bankrupt the Soviet Union. In fact, you look back now and see that Reagan and Thatcher had rather more going for them than the Guardian editorials of the time thought they had."

Does a similar world-view corrupt the BBC's coverage today? "I don't think this is true of the BBC, but I think it's true somewhere that people automatically assume that George Bush is wrong about everything. That is an example of a perspective that can set in if you are not careful."

Mosey will not talk about the David Kelly affair until Lord Hutton has published his report. But, speaking in Bonn last month, he hinted at the mood among his senior colleagues by telling a story about Will Wyatt, former managing director of BBC Television. In the 1980s, Wyatt was invited to take responsibility for all the BBC's journalism. He contemplated the fate of colleagues who had taken the plunge and been destroyed by controversy. Wyatt concluded: "No thanks." But Mosey defended the value of controversial reporting, and promised: "The BBC will therefore continue to support investigative journalism, and reporting which shines a light into darkness."

So, I ask him, why did Newsnight not broadcast Michael Crick's investigation of the use of public funds in Iain Duncan Smith's private office? Has the corporation lost its nerve? Mosey has no regrets over the affair. "Any set of allegations which are potentially serious needs to be watertight," he says. "We will not take risks on stories which are high-profile. The fact is that if the legal advice and if the management view was that the story was not ready to go, that is clearly taking place in a post-Hutton world and we would have made exactly the same decision in a pre-Hutton world as well."

He adds: "Michael is a fantastically good journalist, but there are points at which you can't publish some things, and that would have been as true a year ago or two years ago as it is true this week."

Mosey's empire does not extend to radio, a fact that must cheer him as he reflects on the Gilligan affair. But his own fiefdom faces regular criticism of its own. In his Bonn speech, Mosey characterised the critics of BBC standards as believing that "any move away from the tone and intellectual level of broadcasting in the 1950s is to betray everything we do".

He said: "This opinion is usually pushed by newspapers that devote their front pages to large photographs of pretty young women and free flight offers." He assured his audience that "BBC News has no intention of playing to the lowest common denominator".

Gravitas is central to Mosey's defence of News 24, the BBC's rolling news service. The channel is due to be relaunched within the next six weeks or so, after heavy criticism in an independent report compiled by the former Financial Times editor Richard Lambert, who declared that the channel was "not yet as good as the BBC claims it is".

Mosey insists that most opinion-formers significantly prefer BBC News 24 to Sky News. "The exception is that newspaper newsrooms tend to watch Sky more, and I think there is a fairly obvious reason for that - Sky does sometimes flash [breaking stories] that wouldn't pass the BBC test. I think newsrooms use Sky more as a kind of copy-tasting service, which is perfectly fair, but News 24 is really valued by its audience."

So, how will News 24 react to criticism? A new set, for a start, and seemingly a withdrawal from a head-to-head ratings battle with its rival. "The News 24 set is actually the oldest of the sets we've got. It goes back to 1999. It is lacking in energy, it lacks dynamism. It has got too much beige, and generally speaking it does not show off the channel to best effect. Equally, the graphics are a bit tired and old. We feel that those need to be revamped and relaunched as well."

Mosey acknowledges errors in the marketing of News 24. "There was initially a mistake two or three years back, when we said that we wanted to be the market-leader. A market leader always implies ratings. [But] what we want it to be is a quality choice of news channel. Its primary audience is going to be BBC News loyalists and people who on the whole are broadsheet viewers rather than tabloid viewers."

As the editor of the Today programme in the 1990s, Mosey was affectionately known as Mr Blobby. He was jovial, constantly smiling and apparently relaxed under pressure. Some of the levity has gone as his responsibilities have grown, but he has grown in stature. It is hard to imagine him saying "No" to the question Wyatt was asked. His will be a name to watch in the aftermath of Lord Hutton's report.

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